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Ship Channel Accident

This week we spend quite a bit of time on the water in the ship channel area helping the Coast Guard look for two people that were missing after a tragic boating. These types of searches often start out simply but end up going into all types of different worlds. When they happen, I’m always grateful for the privilege of having friends and colleagues in various parts of the broader safety net. One of the really nice things about being in a job like this for a long time is you get to develop relationships with some pretty evolved people.

Late in the afternoon I got a call from Louis Trouchesset with the Marine Division of the Galveston Sheriff Office, who is a key member of the Galveston Marine Response Team. He told me about the accident and said that they were not able to launch a boat because of the dense fog. With an hour of daylight left, my staff decided they could launch a jet ski and hug the rocks on the east side of the south jetty to see if they could locate one of the four people that were missing. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anything. Coast Guard found two and then searched throughout the night with their larger boat, using radar and GPS to navigate. The Galveston Police Department was able to get out there as well for much of the night. The next morning, we provided a lifeguard to Louis in the county boat and searched throughout the day alongside them using jet skis.

Louis will hate that I write this about him because he’s not the kind of guy that ever seeks out attention. But he is one of the more impressive people I’ve had the privilege of working with. He is incredibly knowledgeable about marine law enforcement and basically everything else to do with boats or ocean. In addition, he’s really a smart guy and sees both the larger picture and things other people miss, especially around the water. Exposure to him and the way he works is invaluable training for my staff.

Louis and I have worked with another extraordinary person in the Coast Guard on a number of different things. Caren Damon is an example of the quality that rises to the top in a system like that. She’s amazing with families in crisis among lots of other things. When she asked for a space to brief and provide counseling to the victims’ families, I immediate called David Mitchel with the Jesse Tree.

David is a highly creative social services guru who knows everything and everyone. He has attracted a group of volunteers for our Survivor Support Network program who are compassionate, energetic, dedicated and fun, just like him. They arranged for a room at Moody Methodist within a couple of hours.

All these friends and organizations going to such lengths for others, along with my unbelievable staff who enthusiastically spent hours in the cold and wet, are a source of constant inspiration.

Fisherman Rescue

Sometimes rescues are not as dramatic as they are interesting.

A couple of days before Christmas we received a direct call from a local resident who was worried about his son right as the sun was setting. He called our main number which automatically rolls over to our “on call” phone when no one is in the office. His son, who was in his late teens, had been out duck hunting on the north side of the San Luis Pass since early in the day. He waded out to an island that was about a quarter mile from shore, but the tide had filled in and the gut he’d walked across was now overhead with a strong current running through it.

Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Supervisor Josh Bailey headed out to The Pass. They were finally able to locate the vehicle the victim had driven in after it was all the way dark. They were able to communicate with him by phone and he used a combination of a flashlight and firing his shotgun to help them find him.

After careful consideration they decided to have Josh go for the guy and Austin to stay on shore in case they needed to call for more help. Josh donned his wetsuit and a headlight, grabbed a waterproof radio, and headed out using a combination of wading and paddling a rescue board.

When Josh got to the island, he found the fisherman in good spirits. He was painted up in camouflage paint and wore a camo outfit with waders. He had a backpack loaded with supplies, a shotgun, and a string of duck decoys. He said he was thinking about just eating some food he had brought and sleeping until the next low tide, but was afraid that the tide would cover the island when it filled all the way in. He was worried that he couldn’t make it across the gut, where the tidal flow had carved out an area that was well overhead. As Josh paddled him in with all the little decoys following them like a mama duck, he was joking around but was happy to be rescued by a “rescue swimmer”.

We’ve rescued many people, and even a cow, out there when the conditions and the sandbars change rapidly. Something that seems so simple, like wading out to a shallow sandbar, can turn deadly quickly.

I don’t know the guy that was rescued. But I know some things about him just by reading the rescue report. For such a young guy he’s very smart and/or experienced. He knew his waders could fill and drown him, as has happened to countless people fishing over the years. He was also really smart to be so prepared with a flashlight, food, and a charged cell phone.

Taking some simple precautions, thinking out a course of action carefully when the situation changed, and not being too proud to call for help when needed was the difference between a potential tragedy and an interesting story.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Winter goes quickly in Galveston. Before you know it, the beaches will be filling up again and we’ll start the cycle all over again.

We all make resolutions for the new year. We change our diet, commit to exercising more often, promise ourselves we’ll be more patient with difficult people or work environments, and basically try to will ourselves into being better people. And changing our path is a real, although difficult, possibility. The Dali Lama said something to the effect of right intention leads to right actions, which if practiced consistently leads to right being. You can, over time change your essence for the better. You can become a better person through discipline and consciously changing your actions.

We on the Beach Patrol also have annual resolutions and goals that we choose and focus on for the year. Just like you and I and most people, we try to keep doing the good things we do consistently and pick areas we think we should improve on and make them our focus. Many of these goals are embodied in our annual “business plan”, which all the Park Board departments do, and our board of directors approves/adopts for the coming year.

For us it usually boils down to setting goals that will ultimately prevent accidents. Many of them have to do with targeting areas that we can improve either our performance or focusing on segments of the population for public education.

One area we always want to improve on is how much we’re able to impact the youth. Our belief is that when young people know the basics of beach safety, they not only avoid accidents themselves, but they can also educate their peers, younger siblings, and even their parents. The schools have for many years been very supportive of our annual School Water Safety Outreach Program. A big part of this is we go out to the schools in the Spring and give water safety presentations to as many kids in the schools as we can. We focus on Galveston County, but have in recent years extended our net further. Our goal this year is to hit over 20,000 children. If these kids know how to avoid rip currents and other beach hazards they can spread that knowledge. We can create a sort of “herd immunity”, in which kids who are “inoculated” with information on how to be safe reduce the chances of drowning of not only themselves, but other kids and family members they’re with. We do the same for groups that show up on the beach.

Of course, we have many other goals related to administration, maintenance, communication, and productivity. But ultimately it all comes back to preventing aquatic accidents. And when you talk of prevention the key is to provide the tools and information for people to be able to take care of themselves and then be there ready to help with additional layers of protection and response when all else fails.

Winter Days

I love a lot of things about Galveston. These magic winter days where the rest of the country is freezing, and our beaches are full of people are a reminder of how good we have it in our little corner of the planet. This year has been especially beautiful.

For us, this is a time of renewal. We rebuild towers, set signs, revise policies, and work on longer term projects. All the things we can’t do while we’re going full steam during the season. We are briefly given time to breathe and reflect on the things we’re thankful for. Here is my list in no particular order:

1. Living and working in Galveston- Where else can you get almost anywhere within 20 minutes, not have to make dinner or movie reservations, and have to work to not see the beach at least a couple of times a day. And G—town is still big enough to get whatever you need right on the island.

2. City and Park Board- I always feel gratitude when I work with other lifeguarding groups in Texas, the Great Lakes, and the East and West Coast. The Park Board and the City of Galveston has provided a way for the Beach Patrol, as the official lifeguard group for the city, to use hotel tax revenue for the bulk of our operational expenses. Very few lifeguard services around the country and world operate this way and its really benefited our beach visitors. In the time since I started, we moved from 17 employees and one full time person to 14 full time people and a staff size of well over 110 during the height of the season. Its never enough, but we are able to make around 200,000 preventative actions a year, keeping over 7 million people away from dangers that could hurt or even kill them. We deeply appreciate being given the tools to do this good work.

3. Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) Volunteers- Despite all our efforts and help from other groups, there are inevitably times when people slip through the safety net and die in our waters. The SSN is always available with support for the families in the form of translators, councilors, or merely someone who listens. They bring food and shelter, find hotel rooms, work with consulates to contact family, and are a link to other public safety groups.

4. Wave Watchers- What can you say about people that volunteer their time to be trained and then to patrol our beaches during times or at areas where we don’t cover. This dedicated support group has quickly become indispensable in our world.

5. Galveston Marine Response- The spirit of cooperation between fire, police, EMS, and lifeguards is something rare here on the island, but nowhere is it more evident than how we respond to water emergencies.

6. Beach Patrol Staff- Their dedication, caring and energy are a continual source of awe and renewal for me. I have no words to express my gratitude.

What Goes Around Comes Around

A man I know from the beach is a regular on the east end. He trolls regularly with his metal detector and sometimes pulls up some pretty cool stuff. These guys love it when we get a strong north wind which blows the water way out, particularly at low tide. On these days they can get to areas that are usually too deep to check under normal circumstances. We were chatting about this in a local restaurant and the conversation led to two pretty amazing stories.

A short time ago he was at east beach checking the area near the South Jetty. He was facing out to sea and standing in shallow water where a current was pulling towards the rocks while working his metal detector. A small form floated by right in front of him. He reached down and picked up a 3-year-old girl who would have surely drowned. When he got her out of the water and saw she could breathe still, she started crying loudly. Her mother charged him yelling and it almost got physical. She snatched her daughter out of his arms and to this day probably doesn’t realize he saved her little girl’s life.

The second story is set in the 80’s on the other end of the island at the San Luis Pass. The man, then in his early 30’s, went wade fishing with a friend. They were on the second sand bar when the friend suggested they go out to the 3rd sand bar. The man, who was the captain of his swim team in high school a decade earlier, got tired and started going under. He is a self-described “tough guy” who worked as a door man at bars and never pictured himself as someone who would panic. He remembers struggling, but not much else. Later he found out that he went under and when his friend tried to help him, he tried to climb up on his friend and they both almost drowned. Somehow, his friend was able to kick him away, regroup, and then managed to grab him and tow him back to the second sand bar. At that point they were barely conscious and barely able to maintain their heads above water even while touching bottom. Beach Patrol got to them before they gave up completely and brought them to shore.

The man refused medical treatment, but later that evening collapsed in his own home and was transported by EMS to the hospital. He ended up having to stay in the hospital for 3 weeks because water in his lungs led to severe pneumonia. After he recovered, he was always alert and cautious when around the water, which for him has been a big part of his life. The event also led him to be aware of his limits and respectful of the potential power of the ocean.

Because of all this, after he was rescued in the 80’s, he lived to rescue another person over 3 decades later.

South Jetty Rescue of Four Boaters

The icy wind blasted across the rocks as the two wetsuit clad figures picked their way gingerly across the algae and barnacle covered surface in the darkness. No moon showed to help. Waves and spray threatened to wash them away. Dain Buck had a headlight and Kevin Anderson had a waterproof flashlight tucked under the strap of his hood. They had rescue tubes clipped around their waist, wore lifejackets, and carried rescue fins and flairs. They made slow forward progress but had to stop periodically when waves washed across the jetty. Suddenly a cut in the rocks about 20 yards across appeared. Water rushed through. They stopped and huddled together to shout over the gale though frozen lips, strategizing. Time was critical.

4 men were caught in a strong frontal system and their boat swamped. The boat sank as it was pushed towards the South Jetty, and the men were able to scramble up and huddle behind a large rock. They called 911 and spoke with a dispatcher, who immediately alerted the Galveston Marine Response and US Coast Guard.

When Dain and Kevin heard the call, they did what Beach Patrol protocol dictates and tried to launch a 22 foot rescue boat from the Coast Guard base. Neither they nor the Coast Guard were able to launch smaller boats because of the condition of the sea. Coast Guard did send a larger boat out, which eventually was able to spot the men at the end of the jetty.

Coast Guard was requested to send a helicopter to lift the 4 men off the jetty. Dain and Kevin made the call to walk out the jetty, find the men and assess their condition, then radio the GPS coordinates to the Helicopter. They were not sure how long the men would last in the 36-degree windchill, made worse by being wet, exhausted, and exposed. But the helicopter was rerouted to another call. A second helicopter was then dispatched and shortly after cancelled for equipment problems.

Dain and Kevin used a Swiftwater technique using their rope to cross the cut one at a time. They eventually found that swimming next to the rocks was faster than walking, although they kept bumping into underwater rocks because they couldn’t get too far from the jetty without being blown out to sea. They found them, but without air support they knew they would not be able to bring the victims to shore.

Fortunately, Beach Patrol has a number of full-time guards who watch out for each other. Despite wind gusts of up to 45mph, Jeff Mullin and Kevin Knight made the bold decision to run a jet ski, which won’t swamp or be blown over like a boat, out right by the rocks in the protected area. Eventually, with the teamwork of Fire, EMS, and Police, and after a heroic effort taking more than 3 ½ hours, everyone got back to shore safely.

These heroes took some risks to get everyone to shore, but it paid off. The sea did not claim any lives that night.

Beach Patrol Safety Precautions

Last week I talked about how we deploy each day and some of the nuances of how we operate. There are some underlying principals that we follow that are related, in that they dictate how we operate with regards to safety of our employees and/or the beach going public. These give a look behind the curtain of how we make many of our staffing and operational decisions. I’d like to share a few of these with you.

We try to have at least a 1 to 1 victim to rescuer ratio. So, if there are 5 victims, we try to have a minimum of 5 rescuers respond and one additional one to stay on shore as a communication link and incident commander. There are times this is impossible and one of our guards must attempt to save two or more people. This is possible, but very dangerous for both the rescuer and the victims. We’ve had a couple of incidents in recent history where the guard was overcome, but fortunately help was close by. Making a water rescue is a risky thing and that’s a big part of why we try so hard to prevent situations from developing that could end up in a rescue.

Stretching our guards too thin is another risk. We attempt to ensure guards don’t work too many hours in a day or in a week. Exhaustion not only leads to inattention, but to a reduction in the physical ability we must maintain in order to work long days and undertake strenuous tasks, like a rescue. There are many things we practice that help, such as scheduling 4 guards for each three towers so one can work an early shift and then give breaks to the other guards later in the day.

Whenever possible we work in teams. Two people to a truck or guards working adjacent to each other allows us to watch each other’s back and protect the public when some of us are tied up with an emergency. This applies to the zone system of coverage we have with both vehicles and tower guards. If a truck is out for more than 5 minutes on something, the other vehicles shift coverage, so they always have every part of the guarded beach covered in case something else happens. The result of quick backup for guards or response to emergencies definitely saves a number of lives each year.

Finally, lifeguard health and safety is critical. It’s a big part of why the guards have a daily fitness and skills training session each day. There is a real cost to letting our staff get exhausted, dehydrated, or overworked. With lifeguarding it’s all about focus, and people can’t consistently pay attention when they’re burned out. The result of ignoring this has a clear result in number of injuries, staff retention, missed workdays etc. If a guard doesn’t come to work or isn’t sharp in this job, it’s a real different thing than feeling tired or listless at a normal job.

Change Overtime

A group of 17 stood in the sand outside of a green and white trailer at Stewart Beach. Their feet were so dark they had a greenish tint against the white sand because they worked with minimal sun protection. Walkie talkies were issued as they joked around and made plans for after work.

In 1983 we only had 17 lifeguards on staff. We made $2.75 an hour and worked 6-7 days a week. New guards moved around, but guards with more experience primarily worked one tower and were assigned the more challenging ones. There were no formal lunch breaks. Instead, you took a quick break if you felt no swimmers would get in trouble. Most of us brought our lunches. There was not enough sand on the seawall for people to use lots of the areas, so we only covered about a third of the groins. Most of the crowd was at Stewart Beach and Apffel Park (now “East Beach Park”). There was no formal lifeguard training academy, you learned from other guards as you went along. Because of the lack of coverage we made a ton of rescues, especially when working the mobile patrols. We also broke up lots of fights and dealt with many more drowning fatalities than we do now.

Stewart Beach was the heart of the beach life for us. Not only was that where we started and ended each workday, but things were booming. There were two huge clubs on the beach that had live rock music. Some of us worked as bouncers after our lifeguarding shift. There were bumper boats, go carts, two water slides, little vendor shacks on the sand, miniature golf, and more. A lot of us would go to the blues bar at one of the water slides after work and hang with the local crew, bikers, and whatever tourist was brave enough to wander in.

The changes from then to now are significant. We have about 100 more guards on staff and cover every groin, for many of which we provide a double shift and work till dark. Guards have a set lunch break and reasonable hours so they can stay sharp and attentive. A formal academy and daily training ensures consistency, professionalism, and reduced liability for the city. We also provide both patrols and emergency response 2/7/365. And we make over 200,000 preventative actions a year instead of waiting to react to a crisis.

So maybe its not as fun now as then. But now we have quick backup for the guards when they get into the life-threatening situation of making a rescue. We work in tandem in the trucks more of the time, so our Supervisors are able to watch each other’s backs. And we don’t leave the public unprotected during working hours.

The thinner you stretch your resources, the more risk for guards and the public. One important measure of success is, because of our level of resources, we now average, with 7 million tourists, 6 drownings instead of 18-25 annually.

Pleasure Pier Rescue

Late in the day on Sunday, September 29th two young women entered the water underneath the Pleasure Pier. It was a very rough day with red flag warnings and rip current advisories, and the beach was crowded with thousands of swimmers in the water. This late in the year we didn’t have enough guards to staff tower 25.

The two women stepped into a deep area caused by the interaction of the current and posts and were swept out by a strong rip current. They flailed in the water panicking. One was able to grab a barnacle encrusted post in a bear hug and keep herself above water. The other tried to make it to the next post and repeatedly tried to climb up, ripping the skin off her fingertips and getting sliced by the barnacles. She started to go under and began to “climb the ladder”, meaning she was actively drowning and ineffectively throwing her arms out in front of her to catch one more breath.

Supervisors Michael Lucero and Mary Stewart were both at tower 24 checking with the lifeguard, Matthew Sicilio, when they saw a familiar figure in a blue shirt waving them over. Carlos Guerra, one of our most active volunteer Wave Watchers was patrolling the area and spotted the two women in trouble. On the way the police dispatcher said they’d received multiple 911 calls and were sending the Galveston Marine Response group (fire, police, and EMS). They arrived to find a large crowd yelling and pointing but no one could actually see either of the two women.

Lucero grabbed his rescue fins and tube and ran under the pier as Stewart assumed “Incident Command”. She directed Lifeguard Matthew Sicilio to run from his tower at 24 and help Lucero. Lucero then “dolphin dove” to the east side and then used the same rip current that sucked the women out. But for him it was a way to get quickly away from shore. He looked back to see Carlos using Beach Patrol signals to direct him to the victims, who were under the pier and hard to spot. He found the first one hanging on the post and saw the second one trying ineffectively to latch on to the next post out. He asked the first woman if she could hang on a little longer. When she said she could and told him where her friend was, he swam farther out and got to the second woman just as she submerged for the final time.

Matthew Sicilio and long-time surfer Erich Schlegel swam out to help. Matthew ended up taking the second victim in and Erich helped make contact and then helped Lucero bring the first victim to shore. They turned the two women over the fire and EMS on shore as the police provided crowd control. One was transported to the Emergency room in stable condition.

This was really close. Many threads of our larger safety net had to come together to save these two women.

This Coming Year

We just finished the budget process for the Beach Patrol’s next year and I gave a short presentation on Beach Patrol in general, the coming year, and where we’re headed to our Board of Directors. I though selected parts of this might be of interest. I think it helps get the point across that we are not just a lifeguard service but an overall safety net with many different pieces all working together.

The mission of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is to provide professional lifeguard service to the City of Galveston’s beaches through the direct prevention of and response to aquatic accidents and through public education. We felt public education was a big enough part of preventing drowning deaths that it should be in the defining sentence about the service.

Annually we average 170,000 Preventions (moving people away from danger), 150 Rescues, 1,800 Enforcements, and 1,800 Medical Responses. The medical and enforcement responses are mostly cases of being able to filter calls for the police, EMS, and fire departments. If we treat minor medical emergencies or do things like settle disputes or enforce ordinances those are calls that the other departments don’t have to waste time and energy responding to. Its helpful that we have a very small in-house police department.

We routinely patrol 33 Miles of Beach but provide emergency response to over 70 Miles of Coastline all year. During 7 months of the year we proactively guard 9 miles of beach out of 32 lifeguard towers. In the summer we provide daily west end patrols and weekend patrols at the San Luis Pass. Just in the past 5 years we’ve taken on a San Luis Pass patrol on summer weekends, 7 day a week summer patrol of the west end, and guarding the new “Babe’s Beach” west of 61st.

We are involved in a multitude of community programs including the Junior Lifeguard Program, Water Safety School Outreach (26,000 kids this year), Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers, Basic Water Rescue instruction for public safety and surf camp instructors, and the Galveston Marine Response Group. We are also enhancing operations with a couple of new enclosed fiberglass towers with coastal marine life wraps on them next year. All of this will be accomplished next year with a budget of only 3.1 million, 117 seasonal employees, and 14 fulltime employees who have lifeguard training plus the addition of Swiftwater Rescue, National Incident Management System certification, are Personal Rescue Water Craft Operators, Certified Tourist Ambassadors, EMTs, Red Cross/USLA Instructors, some are Peace Officers, and more.

This coming year we are focusing on a patient transport capable vehicle for the San Luis Pass to help get people off the sand to EMS units, growing our year round staff’s SCUBA capabilities and getting our new tower sponsorship program off the ground.

We also are focused on the establishment of sustainable levels of service within new budgetary constraints so we can make recommendations on what the minimum necessary are to prevent drowning rates from increasing. As we move into a future with increasing beach use, we need to address the need for growth with future beach nourishment projects, funding challenges, a marked increase during the shoulder season of fall and spring and even winter, increase in use of west end beaches, and creative funding solutions to help us target higher risk drowning populations.